Keeping track of Ken Vandermark's activities is a job in itself, and, admittedly, he must have fun playing all over the world with other musicians, each time in different countries, with different backgrounds and approaches to music. Yet regardless of the context, Vandermark manages to fit in perfectly well without loosing his own recognisable voice and approach.
Territory Band with Fred Anderson - Collide (Okkadisk, 2007)
Territory Band is an intercontinental mini big band with Johannes Bauer on trombone, Axel Dörner on trumpets, Per-Ake Holmlander on tuba, Lasse Marhaug on electronics, Paul Lytton and Paal Nilssen-Love on percussion, Jim Baker on piano, Fredrik Ljungkvist, Dave Rempis and Ken Vandermark on sax, Kent Kessler on bass, David Stackenas on guitar and Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello. This album "Collide" is dedicated to Chicago free jazz icon Fred Anderson, who is also joining for the occasion.
Vandermark explains that he tried to "design compositional frameworks that liberate and motivate the improvisers rather than confine them through a rigid set of directives and overly complex material". The musicians are free to add things and play as they see fit. The first track is a very thundering, menacing orchestral piece, the second starts with a Vandermark solo imitating some of Anderson's phrasing (at least that's what I think), to be interrupted by Lasse Marhaug's electronics, kicking off an African-influenced theme, which once subsiding gives room for bass and tuba soloing. The audience reacts very enthusiastically throughout. The players perform well, there is enough variation between soloing for the individual players and band-played tunes, but the variety of styles do not always mix. It is not clear to me either how this is a tribute to Anderson, but it is in any case one of Territory Band's most coherent performances.
The Thing with Ken Vandermark - Immediate Sounds (Phonofile, 2007)
"The Thing" is a trio consisting of Mats Gustafsson on sax, Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums, named after a Don Cherry composition and originally focused on Cherry's music. On this album they are joined by Ken Vandermark who has played with the three musicians before. The first track starts off with the typical high energy playing these Swede and Norwegians are known for, and Vandermark blends in very well in this idiom, with his free funking improvizations feeling like a fish in the water, utterly enjoying the company, and when the blow-fest subsides, the drums and the bass pave the way for some very sensitive melodic playing in the second track, moving on to the third when Vandermark starts blowing one of his funky riffs, and Gustafsson can give free reign to the creative power of his instrument, after which Vandermark lifts his riff into a high electricity improv, which then turns into a raw, screeching, creative improv duel/dialogue between the two baritone saxes on the fourth track, then shifting beautifully into some bluesy interplay when bass and drums join, but these musicians are who they are and it doesn't take long before their hyperkinetic urges bring them back where they excell, namely into nuclear energy fields, where emotions and power and creativity join, first wailing but towards the end meeting each other in an interesting alternating interplay between spontaneous unisono melody and low tone counterpoint. Breathtaking indeed.
Listen to and download from eMusic.com
Tim Daisy & Ken Vandermark - August Music (self-published)
Tim Daisy and Ken Vandermark have played hundreds of time together, but this is their first duo recording, which was only distributed in the context of their tour this summer. The recording itself was made during a life performance at the Empty Bottle in Chicago a year earlier. The record begins quite freely, with loose sounds trying to justify their living, but the second track brings us more into jazz territory, with funky sax and rhythmic drums, to be brought back again into some extended playing on both instruments, creating unusual sounds leading into some plaintive hesitant wailing on the bass-clarinet. Daisy is as much in the lead as Vandermark, setting the scene, with some very creative approaches, giving ideas and rhythms to Vandermark who takes them up with pleasure, turning into his usual funky improvs. This is high energy intimacy.
Listen to Study For Mural
Free Fall - The Point In A Line (Phonofile, 2007)
With Free Fall, Vandermark stays in Scandinavia with Havard Wiik on piano and Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten on bass. This is the band's third album after "Furnace" and "Amsterdam Funk". The band was originally trying to revive the Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley and Steve Swallow line-up from the sixties, "Free Fall" being also the title of a Giuffre album. The music is composed and open, melodic and sensitive. The energy level is not comparable to the records reviewed above, but that doesn't mean there is less tension. The three musicians manage to make their interactive statements compact and to-the-point, with an aesthetic efficiency which is rare in free jazz, even in the more chaotic pieces. There are some stunningly beautiful moments on this album. Great musicianship and great music.
Listen to and download from eMusic.com.
Ken Vandermark & Pandelis Karayorgis - Foreground Music (Okkadisk, 2007)
There is a sequence to this list, namely, the energy level goes down. But again, that's no negative judgment, just a factual statement. On "Foreground Music", Ken Vandermark joins forces with Greek national Pandelis Karayorgis on piano. Karayorgis moved to Boston in the 1980s to perfect his playing at the New England Conservatory, and he remained in the neighborhood. His playing is absolutely excellent, not expansive, but precise and concise, giving as much attention to the compositional structure as to the melodies themselves. And again, Vandermark feels as comfortable in this context as in any other. The music is abstract, with angular melodic figures, sometimes close to modern classical, but also at times reminiscent of middle-eastern music, with its long-winding themes and odd metres (on "JCT"), or just plain romantic and subdued (on "Dreamless"), or digging into jazz heritage and film music. The sensitivity and restraint are unusual for Vandermark, but it is absolutely excellent. Great musicians, great interplay, great music. Candy for the ear. A real treat.
Listen to Lifgatowy here (better sound) or watch it below (sound is too shrill).